I was reminded recently of a peculiar event that took place at the Mateel Community Center a couple of years ago called the “Community Values Conference.” A group of cannabis entrepreneurs wanted to use the term “SoHum Community Values” as a marketing tool to promote and distinguish their fine cannabis products. I attended to remind them that, while they still had a great concert hall, SoHum offers very little in terms of community services.
We had, and have, an extreme housing shortage in SoHum, but we have no shelter or services for people without housing. At the time, we had a rash of brutal assaults, mostly against defenseless elderly disabled men who had nowhere to go, and local social media sites dripped with hatred and vitriol aimed at our unhoused population. I wanted to see what kind of values statement the people whose kids beat a helpless old man into a coma and left him lying on the sidewalk in a pool of his own blood could come up with.
Besides that, we have several homicides every year, where young people come here to work, but instead someone kills them and buries them in the woods. Those bodies are rarely found. Arrests and convictions are much rarer still, but law enforcement continues to find egregious environmental destruction at grow sites all over SoHum. People around here don’t bat an eyelash about any of it. If not human life and the natural environment, one has to wonder, what do these people actually value?
At the event, we worked through a series of exercises where we pulled a bunch of positive sounding platitudes out of our asses and reassembled them, according to their popularity, into statements of incomprehensible happy-talk. I can’t recall any of these statements, but I do remember that they seemed quite unmemorable at the time. Still, I think I recognize what the organizers of this event hoped to highlight about their community, and why they might think it would be good for business.
I say “their” community, because of the difference between SoHum’s cannabis growers’ community and the SoHum community at large. SoHum, as a whole, remains as alienated and fractured as any rural American community, and we’re not likely to agree on much, including values. However, one segment of our community enjoys a rare degree of acceptance and comradery. For cannabis growers, SoHum is a very special place.
In most of the country, cannabis growers tend to live very isolated lives. Because of the stiff criminal penalties for commercial cannabis cultivation, growers have to be very careful about who they allow into their lives. If you grow weed in Kansas, you might not know another grower. They don’t have highly specialized garden supply stores in Ohio, at least not in my town, and you couldn’t just drive across town to pick up a tray of rooted clones. If you grow pot almost anywhere else in the country, you do it all yourself, and you do it all alone, and the more you grow, the more isolating it becomes.
I didn’t know anyone else who grew their own weed until I started working with Mass Cann, where I met a number of other, also very isolated, growers. We compared product and talked about cannabis incessantly. It felt great to meet kindred spirits and I learned a lot about growing weed that way. When I got here, my background and interest in cannabis helped me make friends and find employment. That doesn’t really happen anywhere else — at least it didn’t back then. Here in SoHum, cannabis unites us and brings us together, and that’s a rare and powerful thing.
Over time however, this cannabis-centric culture developed its own character, but it also developed a mythology about itself. During the War on Drugs, it was important to portray growers sympathetically, in order to garner public support for their cause. We cultivated the myth of “mom and pop,” the original humble hippie growers, but in reality, secrecy shrouded the whole industry, and we ignored, and accepted, a lot of bad behavior in our own community. We learned to turn a blind eye and keep our mouths shut about the dark side of the industry and what happens here.
Also, people began to conflate the value of cannabis to society with the price of cannabis on the black market. People started to believe that growing cannabis didn’t just pay better than other kinds of work, but that it was worth more. In reality, the value of cannabis to society depends on it being cheap for the consumer. Paradoxically, the more cannabis costs, the less valuable it is, and the less benefit people derive from it. Of course, the quality of our cannabis here in SoHum is so legendary that no one could possible exaggerate it further, but we will continue to try. All of this tends to inflate, in our own minds, the value of what we do here.
In this way, our shared passion for cannabis, coupled with the industry’s culture of secrecy and our own need for acceptance, skewed our perception of reality. We learned to ignore what was really happening around here, and started to believe our own bullshit propaganda. We also forgot that the community of cannabis growers is not the community of SoHum, and that the community of SoHum is not society at large. We’ve lived in this bubble of unreality for a long time, because cannabis growers had real money, and anyone who wanted any of it had to suck up to them and tell them what they want to hear.
Today however, Google Earth deprives growers of their secrecy while legalization slashes their income. Growers can no longer afford their own reality, and the people around them are less likely to afford it to them. The bubble of unreality is collapsing. There is certainly a value to community, and it is something to celebrate, but an insulated community can lose touch with reality, and money is the best insulation in that regard. I think it’s really tragic that cannabis culture here in SoHum has been so warped by the dynamics of the War on Drugs. You could call it the “fog of war.” The cannabis community remains reluctant to face reality here in SoHum, and because of that we will likely endure a very difficult transition to legalization.